The tiger you see madly pacing its cage is [nevertheless] preoccupied with something that a human would certainly recognize as a thought. And this thought is a question: Why? “Why, why, why, why, why, why?” the tiger asks itself hour after hour, day after day, year after year, as it treads its endless path behind the bars of its cage. It cannot analyze the question or elaborate on it. If you were somehow able to ask the creature, “Why what?” it would be unable to answer you. Nevertheless this question burns like an unquenchable flame in its mind, inflicting a searing pain that does not diminish until the creature lapses into a final lethargy that zookeepers recognize as an irreversible rejection of life. And of course this questioning is something that no tiger does in its normal habitat.
To extend the metaphor from Ishmael, a story of a wise gorilla’s attempt to teach a young man of the consequences of the industrial age, we are the tigers and the cage is the world that has been designed: nationstates, money, global markets, media conglomerates, private ownership — the human constructs that trap our movements, limit our relationship to nature and each other, and confuse us.
Professor Bendik-Keymer has the best description of this:
The problem that divides us is neoliberalism. The system of rationality is radically simple: it subjects all values to capitalist market values, especially financial ones, thereby colonizing every aspect of life through a metric of its capacity to generate financial wealth. What makes it an especially new and pernicious form of capitalism is that it hollows out democracy and collective consciousness from within, dissolving, e.g., an awareness of class or of solidarity groupings in its radical individualization of people into their competitive potential against each other. In short, it destroys our capacity to think, say, and be a “we.”
To be conscious is to struggle with not only what is happening around us but “how” to exit it, or improve it. We operate within layers of rules; laws and social norms. Politics is the negotiation of these rules. Politics is how those who are part of a group alter those rules.
If I have a thesis to offer is that the work starts to our left and to our right… that we push ourselves out of zone of comfort towards each other in solidarity to knit the human fabric again, locale by locale. Just as larger systems of racism and white privilege are being tackled, so too can the work of reknitting ourselves together with care, equity and respect in mind.
This course is my attempt to bring you in on a few areas in which I believe design mixes with politics — beyond getting people elected or the mechanics of voting. As a graduate interdisciplinary course, my intention is to frame assignments broadly, underneath units guided by an essential question. You should be able to find your place within this structure, expressing ideas in a form that make sense. In addition to three units that I’m scripting, there is time for open inquiry in the last four weeks, guests, activities and weekly news sharing from you all.
My work in politics has been mostly as a graphic designer helping to get progressive candidates elected. I’ve also worked on an anti-gerrymandering campaign and participated in helping to reimagine elections.
My goal is to bring you in to the ideas and connections that have arisen in my work in hopes to spur something more impactful in you — and to learn from you. We are all in this together. Not just in this room, but on this planet, and my hope for us is that we can thrive as a group, that we encourage each other to make work of interest to ourselves and others.
My optimism that we have agency to connect and build anew with each other is shared by Zoe Larkins who curated the 2020 MCA Denver exhibition titled “Citizenship: A Practice of Society.”
“[Citizen artists] activate and sometimes agitate the communities, political or not, of which they are members or with which they feel solidarity. They encourage others’ awareness of, engagement with, or feelings of allegiance to such communities. They expose and manipulate the forces that govern or influence them. And, often, they create entirely new forces — innovative methods of engaging with others, alternative approaches to activism, or different perspectives from which to consider an issue.” p23
The artist Dread Scott comments in an interview associated with the exhibition:
“I encourage other artists to think about the skills they have been lucky enough to acquire through a lifetime of experience and training and put those in service of making the world better. “
Your stories, your vantage point of life is always an important place to start.
Audre Lorde quoted Simone de Beauvoir in “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” “It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.”
One example, is the artist LaToya Ruby Frazier, who has collaborated with her mother for years to present the beauty and challenges of their lives and community in Pennsylvania.
Or the work of Amanda Williams who painted houses in Detroit slated for demolition. She said, “this didn’t change the neighborhood, it changed people’s perceptions about what’s possible for their neighborhood in big and small ways.”
Amidst the pandemic and political viscissitudes, artists and designers provide such hope, connection, release.
The internet has the potential to rewire power, and so I am interested in it, and would love to see digital work produced in response to the prompts given.
It has advantages, removing bureaucracy, hierarchies, entrenched power structures. Particularly inspiring is the work of Taiwanese Ministry of Digital Information Audrey Tang. Open Collectives, and the ability to share software.
We’ll talk with Gemma Copeland of Common Knowledge next week about software, coops and ways that digital technology can help rewire power.
Unit 1: Who’s in charge?
This course begins with the politics of small groups, organizations, associations…. By bringing awareness to your own power as a part of something. You will list organizations to which you belong, then choose one to create an org chart.
As a graphic designer, I’ve invested in organizations, groups, collaborations. From 2007 until 2021, I founded and nurtured a collective in downtown Providence called The Design Office. It was a 3000 sq/ft place shared workspace where individuals and groups created projects, hosted events, ran workshops.
This advertisement from the Blank Panther newspaper demonstrates alternative community based ways to organize around needs.
Unit 2: How can we use symbols to make a point?
The second unit is based around symbols. Every group or association creates a symbol to represent itself or to rally around. You will make a project that manipulates, alters or applies that symbol in order to express a viewpoint. A symbol could be a building, a piece of cloth, food, a landscape. If a symbol is reference to some shared idea, how can you appropriate it to comment on that idea?
Ancient Greek architecture is often faithfully used and referenced, but it can also be used symbolically, like here in Dread Scott’s proposal for what should be put in the place of a New Orleans confederate monument, a pillar that blocks a street, halting traffic and contemporary life itself.
The assignment asks you to choose a political symbol and to alter, apply or appropriate it to express an opinion.
Run through some US flag examples.
Unit 3: What is public space for?
For about four weeks, we’ll focus on public things. Brown Prof. Bonnie Honig writes of the importance of public things… giving a theoretical basis for why public space and public things are important.
“The existence of public things — to meet each other, to fight about, to pay for together, to enjoy, to complain about — this is absolutely indispensable to democratic life.”
She goes on to make the point that “when public things are democratized, the response of the powerful is often to abandon them.”
Public and unusued space allows for creative opportunities. Use it, inhabit it. Acknowledging the land was stolen opens up creative responses to calls for public art and uses of public land not for development, but to connect us to each other and greater ideas.
We will do a project using the public space as a starting point with the intention of connecting people, providing joy, responding to what you experience.
We’ll connect with the Parks Department, P3 non-profit that works in community centers and possibly a few other organizations.
We’ll be visited by Amber Art Collective, a BIPOC community-oriented public art group. They won a commission to paint a mural on the Garrahy Garage nearby in the Jewelry District.
Of particular inspiration is the work of Theaster Gates who is turning private banks and other private spaces in Chicago into community oriented creative spaces.
Alexandra Bell re-edits and displays newspaper stories in public to expose biases in the media. The public siting of the work makes it unmissiable…
As a graphic designer I’m moved by efforts of putting language into space, like this work from Zoe Leonard that starts, “I want a dyke for President. I want someone with AIDS for President, “ etc.
Landscapes that are not here may be inspiration for work. This image is of a nature walk at the DMZ between North and South Korea.
Everyday environments are fair game to co-opt.
The group ForFreedoms took over billboards around the U.S. and put artwork on them.
It’s possible to admire efforts online by Eli Pariser to create public spaces and shared conversation digitally… but I can’t help but feel skeptical of Silicon Valley’s private/non-profit solution to solving a problem.
The Internet is de-facto public and can be used to speak for a cause.
Perhaps of more interest to me is the speculative app by Miranda July called “Somebody” that uses strangers to deliver messages in person rather than over text.
Unit 4+: Open
We will also talk to policians, Leonela Felix and Jean-Phillippe Barros, both are black representatives in Pawtucket. We will go to the state house to better understand how legislative change happens. This has no assignment attached to it, but like other guests and outings, may influence your own projects or better educate you on the state of voting, ballots, funding and more. Design is the interface in which people engage with government or each other: ballots, government services, border walls, and more.
Andy Pressman of Upstatement will be here as part of the GD Spring Speaker Series. He’ll come to our class on April 7th. He’s been the creative director of Verso Books and Upstatement has designed a lot of political ephemera… We’ll use his visit to get into the advocacy, non-profit and campaign side of design.
Every 3 weeks.
Again from by Dread Scott
“All of us [those in exhibition] are making work that imagines the future in different ways or looks at how we think the world is or how it could and should be.” p15
We need practice expressing opinions in many different ways. Alfredo Jaar’s recent piece in Scotland. “It’s about our incapacity to change this reality, even though I keep going, I keep trying. Because this is the only thing I know”
We are still individuals who are best served by human contact. Let’s making things together, exemplified by this piece from Nari Ward, which I showed earlier at the MCA Deniver. He makes large-scale sculptures and installations, from unexpected materials collected around his urban neighborhood (shoelaces in this case).
The course should be as much about joy, play, the insertion of culture in a form that others must contend with. Rule breaking to understand why the rules are there in the first place. What are artists if not those who change the rules for those so insistent we conform to them.